Military Flooring – Part 2: In Flanders Fields – The Gruesome Mud of World War I

German troops trying to rescue a French soldier from sinking in a mud hole, 1918.

This post is the second in a six part series on the history of military flooring. For part 1, click here.

The 20th century saw massive conflict around the globe, leading to millions of casualties but also catalyzing important revolutions in military technology across the board.

World War I (1914-1918) witnessed the widespread introduction of global warfare technologies, such as airplanes, tanks, submarines, and poison gas. Less famously, it also saw the first modern use of flooring to aid in mission accomplishment.

If you read any World War I book—or watch any show or movie set on the Western Front—you’re pretty much guaranteed discussion of a nonliving enemy common to both sides. Mud. Lots and lots of mud.

Commonwealth soldiers struggling through the mud during the Battle of Passchendaele
Commonwealth soldiers struggling through the mud during the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917. (Photo credit: The Great War Project)

Given the relatively static nature of the war on the Western Front—the front lines didn’t change much between October 1914 and March 1918—both sides dug what turned out to be extensive trench networks to consolidate their positions and prepare for the resumption of maneuver warfare. The trenches were never supposed to be permanent solutions, but both sides could not achieve a major breakthrough until the German Spring Offensive of March 1918.

French soldiers occupying a shallow and crude trench early in the war (late 1914 or early 1915). At this point, trenches were generally simple compared to the complex examples encountered late in the war.
French soldiers occupying a shallow and crude trench early in the war (late 1914 or early 1915). At this point, trenches were generally simple compared to the complex examples encountered late in the war. (Photo credit: Imperial War Museum)

Initially, these trenches were nothing more than relatively shallow zigzagging lines dug using shovels (remember they were only supposed to be temporary). But over time, as units remained in place for longer periods of time, they did what any good soldier does in a comparable situation: they improved their positions. Over time, they developed things like sandbag parapets, firing steps, barbed wire entanglements, second and third lines of trenches, and communication trenches linking the various lines.

British soldiers occupying a captured German trench later in the war. Notice how well constructed it is (wooden supports, retaining walls, etc).
British soldiers occupying a captured German trench later in the war. Notice how well constructed it is (wooden supports, retaining walls, etc). (Photo credit: Imperial War Museum)

These improvements defended men against their human enemies. But they had to face non-human enemies as well—both living and non-living. Rats, flies, lice, fleas and other vermin flourished in the horrid conditions. While burdensome and disgusting, they didn’t generally impede mission accomplishment. But the main enemy in the latter category did. That enemy was mud.

Why all the mud? Well, the trenches cut through lush terrain that received lots of rain—and that rain needed to go somewhere. Water naturally flowed down into the trenches (man-made gutters). The static nature of the war exacerbated the problem. The belligerents fired millions upon millions of tons of artillery ammunition and poison gas at each other. In wars of maneuver, armies battle at one location; then they move on to another. The land at the site of the battleground suffers damage but then generally recovers through natural means. Static situations—like the Western Front of World War I—change the rules. The front lines remained locked, sometimes for years at a time. The ground got continuously churned by incessant explosions day after day, week after week, month after month.

A mountain of spent British artillery shells fired during the Battle of the Somme in 1916. In four days leading up to an assault, the British artillery fired 1.5 million artillery rounds.
A mountain of spent British artillery shells fired during the Battle of the Somme in 1916. In four days leading up to an assault, the British artillery fired 1.5 million artillery rounds. (Photo credit: War is Boring)

This nasty activity transformed beautiful fields into a wasteland of shattered trees, destroyed villages and seas of mud. Water could not drain effectively. In fact, the land got so soft that historians estimate that up to 1/3 of artillery and gas shells fired with impact fuses failed to detonate when they hit the ground. (The rushed manufacturing standards of many factories trying to meet nearly unachievable quotas also contributed to the high dud rate).

The effects of this bombardment endure to this day—over 100 years later. Every year, French and Belgian farmers encounter nearly 900 tons of unexploded World War I ordnance while tending fields, sometimes with tragic outcomes. Vast swathes of French countryside known as Zone Rouge remain “no-go” areas due to this threat. At current cleanup rates, it will take 300 to 700 years to recover and dispose of all the unexploded ordnance.

The shell-torn ground near Verdun is forever changed by the combat that occurred there. This is a modern picture of the ground, shell holes are still clearly visible, and trees struggle to grow in what were once dense forests.
The shell-torn ground near Verdun is forever changed by the combat that occurred there. This is a modern picture of the ground, shell holes are still clearly visible, and trees struggle to grow in what were once dense forests. (Photo credit: Gizmodo)

So yeah, the mud was bad. Very bad.

But how did the mud affect military operations? It hindered both soldier health and transportation. Units generally rotated in and out of the trenches every few weeks. But even temporary exposure to the awful conditions gave thousands of soldiers immersion foot, also known as “trench foot.” Spartacus Educational describes this menace in gruesome detail: “[Trench foot] was an infection of the feet caused by cold, wet and insanitary conditions. In the trenches men stood for hours on end in waterlogged trenches without being able to remove wet socks or boots. The feet would gradually go numb and the skin would turn red or blue. If untreated, trench foot could turn gangrenous and result in amputation.”

Two British soldiers stand in a flooded trench. An inability to dry one's feet can lead to trench foot, a very painful and debilitating condition.
Two British soldiers stand in a flooded trench. An inability to dry one’s feet can lead to trench foot, a very painful and debilitating condition. (Photo credit: BBC)

If a soldier contracted trench foot, higher-ups generally considered him “combat ineffective,” and evacuated him from the line for treatment in the rear. Obviously if an increasing percentage of your manpower is being evacuated due to trench foot, it will become increasingly harder and harder to accomplish your mission, to the point that the unit is so weak it is itself becomes “combat ineffective.”

In our next post, we’ll explore the solutions military teams developed. If you need a solution for your military flooring challenges—even if they involve problems less dramatic than trench foot—the Bike Track team can help. Call us at 888-663-8537.



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